Who is feeding the farmworkers? Esperanza Farms teaches Pajaro Valley families about healthy eating & living
Esperanza’s two acres of farmland have become a means to not only address food insecurity, but also nourish the souls of families in need — and help them through a pandemic that has hit them disproportionately hard.
Mireya Gomez-Contreras spent much of her early life with her parents, working in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast. “We picked everything from cherries to asparagus to melons, and bell peppers and grapes was our thing for the most part,” she says.
She remembers in the mornings, her mom would carry her and her siblings to the car, still asleep. They would wake wherever the harvest was that day, covered in blankets, to find a little fire and some coffee she had prepared for them. Then, when they were ready, they’d run to find her. “We’d go around, pick up wet dirt and make a hole in it, stick a flower in and give it to her,” Gomez-Contreras says. “It was really fun, really good memories of just getting dirty, [of] dirty not being a bad word.”
It wasn’t all happy memories, though. Her parents would often come home covered in pesticides, warning her not to hug them until they had showered. When they were out in the fields, Gomez-Contreras remembers noticing everyone would get quiet, and turn their radios down, when they heard the landowner’s truck approaching. When the truck would pass, “then they would become themselves again,” she says.
Gomez-Contreras now has two children of her own, and the longtime Watsonville resident is the co-leader of Esperanza Community Farms, a non-profit with a mission to localize the food system and address inequality. Its two acres of farmland have become a means to not only address food insecurity, but also nourish the souls of farmworker families like the one in which she was raised, and help them through a pandemic that has hit them disproportionately hard.
Esperanza leases its farmland in Watsonville from the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and uses it to grow organic produce that it distributes to about 100 member families — for free — for around five months out of the year, usually between June November. Around 80% of the families work in agriculture, and 70% have been referred to the farm through the Watsonville Health Clinic because family members, usually children, are suffering from diseases like diabetes and obesity.
The farm’s advisory council is made up of parents, farmworkers and others, all deeply rooted in the Pajaro Valley. Their input guides much of the work at Esperanza.
Many of the people the farm helps are agricultural workers themselves. But the food that they pick is often sold far away and, even if it isn’t, is still not accessible price-wise, Gomez-Contreras says. Farmworkers are usually allowed to bring some food home, but it’s not year-round, and it’s all leftovers; a completely separate food system that can be less reliable and less diverse than wealthier families are offered at the grocery store.
A shoestring budget with a big impact
Esperanza Farms, in its current incarnation, receives most of its funding through a two-year, $196,000 grant from the Central California Alliance for Health. The farm was previously run at a smaller scale on private land in Corralitos, but since early 2020 has been located in Watsonville on Land Trust property. Gomez-Contreras started as a volunteer then became the co-leader in 2020 after the grant was awarded.
Esperanza has four paid employees who manage the farm and community programs. All of the staff have deep roots in agriculture. Hermelinda Vazquez, a Watsonville resident, used to work on farms in Mexico, but since moving to the U.S., she was mostly cleaning houses and working as a caretaker. She was a member and a volunteer at the farm until last year, and now she is on staff as the member engagement specialist.
“I love to work in the farm,” she says. “I enjoy when the kids come, oh my God, I love that. This is the reason I want to work in Esperanza Farms.”
Vasquez helps organize family events and activities, and says it’s very important to get kids out to the farm so they can learn about vegetables while they’re young and still curious.
In addition to providing produce, Vasquez and the rest of the team involve the community in educational activities, like gathering and sharing family recipes (like the ones below), or asking children to draw a family portrait with each family member represented as a vegetable.
Dr. Michele Violich, a physician at the Watsonville Health Clinic, was part of the grant application. Now her clinic refers families to the farm. They haven’t gathered quantitative data yet, but anecdotally Violich thinks it is having an important impact.
“Diet, early on, could have major effects on children’s lifetime health,” Violich says. “But at the same time, [if] one is just in the clinic saying ‘you should eat a lot of fruits and vegetables’ — you can’t tell people what to do. You have to help them make it happen.”
Yenci Puega, a mother of two, was referred by the Watsonville Health Clinic and now receives produce from Esperanza, and says it has been a great learning experience for her and her kids. “We like it, they give us different vegetables, in different colors we didn’t know [about] before,” Puega says.
They recently tried purple carrots for the first time, and loved them.
The produce grown at the farm is chosen based on member input, and this, in addition to home delivery of the food, is key to the program’s success, Violich says.
“It’s hard to incorporate into your life going to pick something up, and not everyone has resources to do that,” she says, and because the crops are things the members have asked for, “they’re growing healthy foods that are more likely to be adopted into the diet of their clients.”
COVID challenges and heightened need
The COVID-19 pandemic was disproportionately hard on Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley. Over half of all COVID-19 cases in Santa Cruz County were among Watsonville residents, though the city accounts for less than 19% of the total county population. Economic loss and food insecurity were similarly concentrated in this area. Puega lost her job as a caretaker, and she needed to be home to take care of her children while schools were closed.
Food insecurity has always been an issue in the Pajaro Valley — and parts of the area are officially classified as food deserts — but the pandemic brought it to the forefront. “COVID spotlighted how much food insecurity there is in low income communities, and we know that we can’t work our way out of food insecurity through food pantries and food banks,” Gomez-Contreras says. “While that’s a necessary and important immediate level resource, the longer term vision is something like this.”
Violich says that for some patients, especially during the pandemic, Esperanza is important not only because it’s healthy food, but because it’s food, period.
Gomez-Contreras says she and the rest of the Esperanza team were in close communication with all their member families throughout the pandemic, and grew increasingly concerned about the compounding impacts of economic and food insecurity, and social isolation.
In late summer 2020, they were finally able to open the farm to about 21 families, by appointment for a U-pick event. “There was such joy,” Gomez-Contreras says. “I just remember kind of the feeling of abundance and joy from watching the kids just go running through the fields and the corn and discovering the new bugs. And they hadn’t done that for months.” Several parents told her they hadn’t been out as a family for so long, and hadn’t been somewhere outdoors with such a feeling of spaciousness and freedom.
In previous years, they would only hold two U-Pick events, but this year, after seeing the impact, they’ve decided to host four, and to involve more of their members as volunteers for the harvest.
“It was really, really impactful,” Gomez-Contreras says. “We realized that even without the pandemic, just given the fact that we’re working with marginalized communities and communities that are just constantly in motion, trying to make ends meet, the farm itself is literal space, that really fulfills and motivates people to just ... be in the moment.”
8:08 AM, Apr. 26, 2021:
The original article incorrectly identified the farm’s source of funding as the California Alliance for Public Health, and the funding amount as $300,00. The correct name of the funder is Central California Alliance for Health, and the amount was $196,000